Tag Archives: landscape

Water in the landscape

While we haven’t had heavy rain here for a while now, there’s a lot of water in the landscape still. The rivers and streams are fast flowing and high in their banks. Streams that only exist when it’s wet are very present, and there are a number of new springs that I’ve seen, and probably many more that I haven’t. The odds are many of those will disappear, but there’s no knowing when.

As I live on limestone, the secret, underground life of water is very much part of the landscape. The spring line on the hills informs where the villages are and where the oldest houses were built. With the weather so unpredictable and so much more heavy rain than is normal, springs can pop up all over the place. I love seeing them, and the arrival of a new one is exciting to me – but that may be in no small part because I don’t live close against a hill and they aren’t in my foundations. I have no idea how big an issue that might be for people locally.

Yesterday I saw a field that had previously had a lot of standing water on it. It’s low lying, it should be a flood meadow and I wonder about its history. Perhaps once it was proper wetland, and carried water through more of the year. We’ve lost so much wetland from the UK, and I often wonder where it was and how differently the landscape would have looked with more of those watery, liminal places.


Tiny Pilgrimages

Up until last year, what pilgrimage meant to me was a really epic walk. An all day sort of effort that would bring me a feeling of deep connection with the landscape, probably coupled with feelings of euphoria.

My ability to handle longer walks has largely gone. There have been a lot of days in the last year when I’ve not made it outside my home. Often I get about twenty minutes or so before the low blood pressure makes me too dizzy to continue. Hills are currently beyond me. Longer walks of a few miles leave me exhausted.

When I started thinking about pilgrimage, I knew I didn’t want to write something abelist and excluding. I wanted to explore the topic in a way that would work for people with fewer options. But, I also didn’t really know what that might mean. I had assumed you could just do this kind of thing at the level that works for you.

That’s not been my experience.

It is difficult to make a very small walk seem like an act of pilgrimage. Even if it takes as much out of me as the bigger ones used to. Even if it is a really hard slog. The major issue is time. On a longer walk I get time to really connect with the land, the sky, the day. I’ll have more wildlife encounters. If I’m only outside for half an hour, I see less, I experience less and the emotional impact is smaller. When walking is a struggle, the struggle itself becomes the dominant experience, not the opportunity for connecting with the landscape. Pain and dizziness are obstacles to connecting.

I’m coming to the conclusion that time spent on this is more important than how far you go. In the warmer part of the year I should be able to sit and rest more during outdoors time, and this will increase how long I can spend outside. Will that be enough? I think it could be, but I don’t know.

At this point the whole experience has me asking a lot of questions about what pilgrimage is for me, and what it means and what makes it powerful. I’m also asking a lot of questions about what scope there is for helpfully reflecting on a topic to the benefit of people whose experiences are radically different from your own.


Druidry and Identity

Druidry gives me a context for my sense of self. It teaches me that I am not separate from nature. I am part of the landscape I live in, and that landscape is also part of me. I am influenced not only by my ancestors of blood, but also by the ancestors who were in this landscape before me. I have chosen my ancestors of tradition – either as specific individuals, or as part of the traditions I engage with. This all contributes to my sense of self.

From the historical/Celtic side of Druidry I am gifted the importance of creativity, honour, courage and loyalty. I have done my best to weave these attributes into who I am, by making them part of how I do things. From the spiritual side of Druidry I get the call to service, the practice of gratitude, and honouring the natural world in my everyday life. Animism informs how I interact with the world.

I’ve been exploring Druidry for nearly two decades now, and a lot of it is in me and has become part of who I am. It’s also given me the focus to work on unpicking my actual self from the consequences of abuse, from ancestral wounding, family stories and the impact of the culture I live in. I have a lot of work to do still. Trying to find my authentic self amidst conditioning, cultural training, societal pressures, internalised patriarchy and colonialism…

This year has done an array of things to my sense of self. I’ve been able to test things that were only ever ideas before, and have found that who I thought I might be in the right context, is real. I’ve reclaimed my intuition and some sense of enchantment. I’ve gone back to beliefs that I had lost. I’ve become more aware of myself as someone with some very specific intellectual needs and have started trying to work out how to deal with that. I’m also having aspects of my sense of self knocked about by early stages of the menopause, by pain, stiffness, exhaustion and body challenges. I had my heart broken in a thorough, self altering sort of way and I still don’t know how to move past that or who I am in face of it.

Identity is not a fixed thing. We grow and change all the time – and much like trees, we put down our rings of memory for each year and grow, and sometimes we make stags heads and die back. We are cut down, and re-sprout from whatever is left. Or don’t. One thing that Druidry has certainly taught me is that I am a lot more able to be kind to myself if I think of myself as being like a tree.


Nature, silence and quiet

Silence isn’t especially natural. In most places where there is life, water or wind, there will be sound – deep caves may be silent, and there may be silence in very thick fog, but that’s about it. However, in an insulated human home, it can be truly silent. I find this disconcerting, and it is always an issue for me at the point in the year when I have to close windows at night. Sometimes I can still hear the owls, but I have to be incredibly quiet and paying attention.

Nature tends to offer us quiet and subtle soundscapes. Some things are loud and raucous – seagulls, high winds, fox songs… but many wild things are subtle and easily missed. For me, the soundscape is as much a part of the experience of being outside as the visual appearance of the landscape is. Unfortunately, a lot of people miss out on this – interested in the picturesque, but oblivious to a lot of what is around them. I say this with confidence having observed other people out walking in parks and at beauty spots.

I’m always amazed by people who go out into ‘nature’ and are then so busy with themselves that they don’t seem to see, and most assuredly cannot hear whatever is around them. People for whom landscape is aerobic exercise, parental guilt appeased, or post-lunch attempts at virtue. I see them not seeing the wild things – where I have paused for a buzzard, raven or deer and they walk on by with no sense of what’s looking at them.

When you talk loudly with other humans, the sounds of the landscape are drowned out. The subtle tinkle of a small stream. The rustle of small rodents in the undergrowth. The calls of small birds – and larger ones. Sound is often the best clue for spotting wild beings and the person intent on a good conversation won’t pick up these clues. What frustrates me is the number of people who are really loud in beautiful places, not just wiping out their own scope for hearing anything other than their own voices, but filling the landscape with their banality. Perhaps they can’t hear how quiet it is. Perhaps the quiet unsettles them, so they fill it with noise. There’s nothing quite like walking in a beautiful place and having the landscape filled with someone’s loud and wholly tedious conversation about some TV show.

At this time of year, if you are quiet, you can hear the leaves falling. You can hear them as they brush against other leaves on the way down. You can hear them as they meet the undergrowth, or land gently on the earth. It is a soft, subtle sound, and it is beautiful, and enchanting, and not available when people are talking loudly. Life is full of such opportunities for small beauty and magic, but often we’re too busy talking over it to even notice.


Druidry, walking, and not walking

Walking is my primary mode of transport and is also how I engage with the natural world and the seasons. It’s a major part of how I exercise, and a key strategy for managing my mental health. As a consequence, not being able to walk is a bit of a disaster. There’s been a lot of that this year, and in the last six weeks or so it has been a massive problem.

Usually the limits on my walking come from pain, stiffness and lack of energy. I’m used to having days when I can’t do much, and fitting what I need to do around what’s possible. However, I’ve had a bout of very low blood pressure (for reasons) and it’s made walking really hard. I haven’t been able to get up hills, I’ve been able to manage twenty minutes at most, and I’ve felt awful. I’m aware that for a lot of people, twenty minutes would be a good amount of walking, but with the role walking plays in my life, not being able to walk for a few hours at a time is a real problem.

It’s meant I’ve had very little access to the landscape. Places I find spiritually nourishing – especially the hilltops – have been unavailable to me. If I had a garden, I could develop a spiritually nourishing outdoors space closer to home – but currently I can’t do that.

I’m lucky in that the underlying causes of this problem have been dealt with, and I should be able to recover and rebuild my strength and stamina. Not everyone who has a bodily crisis gets to do that afterwards. Many people live with sorely limiting conditions.

This experience has taught me that there is nothing I can do inside my flat that does for me what getting outside for long hours at a time does for me. My Druidry is so very much about my relationship with my immediate landscape. Much of the time that’s quite an understated presence – I do think about my connection with land and spirits of place whenever I am out, but that’s often so normal to me that in some ways I don’t notice it. Absence is a great teacher, and what I’ve not been able to do has taught me about what I need to do.

There’s an interesting balance around internalising things and losing sight of them. With any spiritual practice, you want to embed it so deeply in your life that it is your life. But when you do that you can stop noticing that it’s there, which is problematic. This in turn brings me to consider the usefulness of deliberate spiritual action for reminding us of our spiritual lives, and how necessary it may be to have things that aren’t so deeply embedded that they become invisible. This might mean I need to make a labyrinth once I’m back in shape. That’s a good jolt out of everydayness.

I certainly need to look at what I can do with my Druidry that is real and immediate to me, and soul satisfying, and not so dependent on being able to walk for a couple of hours. Alongside this, I have a lot of practical work to do rebuilding body strength and stamina, getting my heart fitter again, and getting back up the hills. I’ve come to understand in recent years that taking care of my body is a necessary consideration for how I do my Druidry – my body is where I experience everything else, and if I don’t keep it well and fit, I can’t get out there and do anything else. I’m very glad to have at least some options around improving wellness and fitness.


Walking, stories and landscape

I experience the landscape around me in a way that is full of story. At this point, these stories are a mix of local folklore, history, personal experience and fiction.

If I walk from my home to the top of Selsley Hill, I go through a tunnel where I once had a rather magical encounter with a fox. I pass a corner where there was a slowworm one time. I walk past a community garden where I used to be involved. There is a pub, which has a few personal stories associated with it. Then I walk past the field where the were-aurochs first transformed in my Wherefore stories. I will tend to remember the first time going up over the grassy part of the hill and saying there was a chance we’d find orchids and then being blown away by how many orchids there were. There is a path where the bee orchids grow, and I remember who I’ve taken to see them in previous years. There is a signpost that gave me a strange experience once in the mist. Finally, there is the barrow, and all that I’ve done there. And all the other points in the landscape visible from the hilltop and all the stories that connect to those.

Each re-visit adds layers to the story of my relationship with this landscape. Over time, some of the personal experiences turn out to be more enduring than others. The fictional stories build alongside this.

Part of the reason my relationship with the land is like this, is that I walk. At walking speed, there is time for memories of a place to come to the surface. There is time to share a story or a bit of folklore. At walking speed, the landscape becomes much bigger because we have more time in it, and that allows room in all kinds of ways.

The car is a rather new thing in terms of human history. Our ancestors walked, for the greater part. There were no road signs. Finding your way through a landscape may well have been a matter of having a narrative map in your head. We know that some early mapping – like establishing the boundaries of a parish, was a narrative that you walked in order to reinforce it. If you can tell a walk as a story, you can teach it to someone who has never been there. Stories make a journey more entertaining and can help you keep going in rough conditions – I’ve certainly used them in that way. Stories help us place ourselves in the landscape – as individuals, as communities, as people with a tradition of being in the landscape.

I don’t have that unbroken lineage that traditional peoples have living in deeply storied landscapes. But, my people have been here a long time, and I have a feeling of rootedness. Most of what I have, I’ve put together for myself, from the local oral tradition, from folklore books, from history, and shared experience. This kind of relationship with a landscape is available to anyone, anywhere – sometimes you have to mostly work with your own material, but that’s fine. Every tradition starts somewhere.


Druidry and Rabbits

Rabbits are interestingly complicated from a Druid perspective. On one hand, they’re cute, fluffy mammals, and on the other, they could be the poster-creature for humans messing up.

We’ve been moving rabbits around the world for a long time. When exactly they came to the UK is uncertain – could have been the Romans, could have been the Normans. Certainly the Normans had to build warrens for them because apparently rabbits back then weren’t very tough at all! Old rabbit warrens in the landscape can easily be confused for other things. There’s an interesting pair near me that, in local legend, are supposedly mass graves for a smallpox hospital.

Rabbits in Australia have been an ecological disaster. They may be small and cute, but being in a landscape where they don’t belong has had a series impact on other species. Tree loss, soil erosion and loss of other plant species causes huge knock on effects.

Then we get myxomatosis – a virus that originated in South America and turns out to have hideous, crippling effects on rabbits, who die slow and painful deaths from it. I’ve heard a lot of stories about how it was deliberately brought into the UK to control rabbit populations – a horrible choice by any measure.

We move rabbits around so that we can eat them. We keep them as pets. We use the fur of Angora rabbits for clothing, but the treatment of those rabbits, is often appalling. The problems rabbits cause in the world stem from our human assumption that they are there for us to use in whatever way we see fit. When we colonise landscapes, our impact isn’t just about moving people in, and humans – especially white, European humans – have caused a lot of harm by deliberately and accidentally moving creatures to places where they do not belong.

Rabbits invite us to look at how we use power. They invite us to square up to a long history of ecological damage and arrogance. They are intimately tied up with colonial histories and the history of invasion. From a Druid perspective, they have much to tell us about what a lack of natural justice looks like, and what human hubris does in the world.


Landscape poetry

Marginal

 

Life is richest

At the margins.

Wood edge, field side

Light and shade.

Butterfly places

Flower haven

Alive with bees.

I eat wild herbs

Underripe blackberries

Spot small birds

Too fast for naming.

Happiest at the edges

Where wild lives

Cling to the unwanted

Land at the boundary.

Untamed, uncut, unfarmed

But not unloved.


Solitude, aloneness and landscape

I don’t need to be on my own to be lonely. Like many people, some of my loneliest experiences have been in the company of people where I have not felt I belonged.  I’m good at not belonging, and there aren’t that many people in whose company I find solace.

Solitude, on the other hand, has been something I’ve actively sought for much of my life. The peace to sit with my own thoughts, the freedom to be as I am with no reference to anyone else. Not being around people does not always cause me to feel lonely.

One of the things that lockdown clarified for me, is that I experience loneliness most intensely in relation to landscape. I don’t find wild, human-free landscapes lonely though. The kinds of wild landscapes other people might call bleak, barren or lonely, have never struck me that way. Expanses of land and sky give me a feeling of belonging, of being held and acceptable.

I am nothing to a hill. I find that immensely comforting. Skies do not judge. Trees do not want small talk. The landscape has little or no interest in me, but is also accepting of me. The loneliness of not being easy in human spaces is eased for me by being out under the sky. Finding the official guidelines when lockdown began were to only go outside for an hour each day was hell, and plunged me deep into depression. In the end I ignored what I was supposed to do, but walked at night and in the early dawn light so as to pose no risk to anyone else.

The loneliness that comes from being landscape starved is worse than anything I have ever felt about a shortage of people.

There are people I need. People I missed dreadfully when I couldn’t spend time with them in person. I know who they are now, and they know who they are, and some of those relationships have evolved of necessity. People I know it is safe to be emotionally honest with. People whose absence causes me the same kind of distress as not being out under the sky enough. There aren’t many of them.

I find the loneliness of being with people where I don’t belong is far harder to deal with in the short term than not having much contact with people outside my household. Over the long term, the absence of people I care about has been painful, but the absence of people generally has been fine, and in many ways a blessing.


Soul Land – a review

Soul Land by Natalia Clarke is a love letter to a landscape. It was a joy for me reading someone else’s poetry in this vein – having done something similar with a poetry collection of my own called Mapping the Contours.

Natalia is in love with Scotland, and her poems are passionate expressions of a profound love affair with place. The writing is generous, sensuous, wholehearted.  These are bardic braise poems directed at place rather than person, and I greatly enjoyed reading them.

I recommend this collection primarily for the pleasure of reading it. However, for anyone on the bard path wondering about writing love songs, love letters, and romances directed towards the non-human, this is a lovely example. For the person who feels alienated and craves relationship with the land, this collection may help you on your way.

To be a body in a landscape. To be alive and keenly feeling and in relationship with all that is around you is an exquisite thing. For me, it is a key part of the Druid path. I’m painfully aware though that many people do not have that grounding love in their lives. Alienation from land, landscape and a sense of place is a modern illness, and reading and writing can be one way back into the land. Poems can be maps, and guides to help us heal and to rebuild the relationships that should always have been ours.

More about the book here – https://rawnaturespirit.com/e-guide/